Importance of Bilingualism

Post date: Nov 29, 2011 4:36:24 AM

Hi everyone, it's sad to see that these days, so many young students do not have good grasp of Chinese language or even English, judging from the widespread usage of Singlish in daily life. I do not disapprove of Singlish. In fact, I believe that it is a very important part of Singaporean culture and what differentiates us from Chinese is other countries. But I believe that we should be able to switch between Singlish and proper English at appropriate times. It's ok to use singlish with your friends and family and also other fellow Singaporeans as it helps forge a connection and camaraderie. I think that Chinese is a beautiful language too. You only have to listen to Jay Chou's songs to understand what I mean, especially his 中国风 songs like 青花瓷 and 发如雪. In my humble opinion, English cannot express emotions and paint a picture as poetically and richly as Chinese language.

And here's today's news of the day for your reading!

ST: Mr Lee launches fund to boost bilingualism

It will be used to help children learn English and mother tongue early

FORMER prime minister Lee Kuan Yew yesterday launched what he described as the 'most important book' he has ever written and kicked off a fund to help children become bilingual early.

Hoping that the fund would top $100 million, he pledged a personal donation of $10 million plus all proceeds from the sale of 200 signed copies of his book which will go for at least $10,000 each.

The book, My Lifelong Challenge: Singapore's Bilingual Journey, documents his 50-year struggle to transform Singapore from a diverse people, speaking many different languages and dialects, into a nation where everyone speaks both English and a mother tongue language.

The Lee Kuan Yew Fund for Bilingualism will be used for initiatives to help children with their mother tongue and English, especially before they reach primary school.

Several prominent donors have already made pledges to the fund.

Thanking Mr Lee for his generous contribution to a worthy cause, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat told reporters the Government would match donations dollar for dollar, up to a cap of $50 million.

He said the ministry would form a committee to look at areas where the money could be used best, including the development of bilingual learning materials for pre-schoolers.

More details would be announced later.

Mr Lee's initiative stems from his belief that languages are best learnt at a tender age, and that English-speaking ethnic Chinese parents should speak to their children in Mandarin at home if they could.

Speaking to a 650-strong audience at the Singapore Conference Hall, he said: 'People have asked me why I embarked on this book, which I consider to be my most important book. The reason is simple: I believe bilingualism to be a cornerstone of Singapore's success story.'

When he first became prime minister in 1959, few in Singapore could speak English, and communication across racial lines was limited.

'They were like tanks of fish in an aquarium, together and yet apart, each community in a world of its own,' he said. 'I made it my mission to bring them together in real, meaningful ways.'

English was chosen as the working language, partly because all laws and official records from the time of British rule were already in that language and, more importantly, because it was a language that levelled the playing field, as no race could claim to have an advantage in it, he said.

But he also decided that it was important for each community to be fluent in its own mother tongue, to develop a sense of its own identity.

'The second language is very important, otherwise you lose your confidence. Because however well you speak in English, you are not an Englishman,' he said.

Both in the book and at the launch event yesterday, he described the popular resistance to many language-related policies he tried to implement, from the prohibition of dialect programmes on television and radio to making English the medium of instruction at all schools.

He closed the Chinese-medium Nanyang University, which he said had been suffering from falling standards and therefore risked the 'wastage of young lives'.

He said the book showed how language was an emotive subject and that people did not respond to language policies based on logic.

The lifelong challenge of bilingualism was also a personal one for Mr Lee, who had been sent initially to two Chinese primary schools before he pleaded for a transfer to Telok Kurau English School.

The result was that he only began learning Mandarin as an adult.

Switching to unscripted Mandarin after his prepared speech yesterday, he said: 'Every night I learnt Chinese, so that I now can say a few words.'

To laughter from the audience, he added: 'Please consider my difficult lesson.'

His message to everyone present: 'I hope you will persuade your friends to help their children learn Chinese well.'

He also held an impromptu dialogue in Mandarin, tackling questions such as whether females or males are better in languages, and what other countries could learn from him.

Published by Straits Times Press and Lianhe Zaobao, the book is available in both English and Chinese editions. It comes with a DVD of extracts from speeches by Mr Lee in English, Mandarin, Hokkien and Malay over the last 50 years.

Mr Lee on...


'In 1955, I contested the General Election as a candidate for the Tanjong Pagar constituency. My opponent challenged me to a debate in Mandarin. I naturally refused to debate with him in a language I was completely unable to speak. His intention was to show my ignorance of the language to the majority of the people who were dialect and Mandarin-speaking. There were then few English speakers. I started learning Mandarin but discovered that it was spoken by only a small proportion of those who have gone to Chinese schools, but who often switched back to dialect when they leave their Chinese schools. The most understood language for the majority of Chinese back then was Hokkien. So I started to learn Hokkien. For more than 20 years I spoke Hokkien.'


'I had a high regard for the discipline and seriousness of purpose in life Chinese school students displayed compared to English school students. One of my most unforgettable memories was when the Chinese High School was having a sit-in led by my left wing pro-communist activists in October 1956 to protest the arrests of student leaders and closure of Chinese High School and Chung Cheng High School. The Chinese school students camped inside the school. After watching this drama of the sit-in at Chinese High School, I passed by the University of Singapore's student hostels on Dunearn Road, just around the corner from Chinese High. The contrast was stark. I could see the students - the English-educated students - enjoying themselves. They were laughing and blowing whistles, regarding the clash between the Chinese students and the police as a big joke. I thought to myself that if Singapore students all turned out like those in the university hostel, Singapore would fail. I vowed then to change this state of affairs.

This was why I decided to save the good Chinese language schools as Chinese schools switched into English as the main medium of instruction. The Chinese schools taught students to be bilingual, disciplined, and have self-confidence. The best Chinese schools thus became Special Assistance Programme schools. Over time, the English language schools like Raffles Institution, Victoria School and others have also become effective in teaching Chinese to its students. We have unified the system but in the process, also preserved some of the values and virtues of the old Chinese school system.'